From students and others protesting against the sacking of its architect through to anti-war activists daubing “No War” on its sails, the Sydney Opera House has long been a target of protest. Actions for justice included a ‘work-in’ carried out by those building it during which they took over their workplace to prevent the sacking of a worker and to directly introduce the 35 hour working week. The following account, which serves as a case study for similar industrial action, is excerpted from ‘Doing without the Boss: Workers’ Control Experiments in Australia in the 1970s’, a chapter written by Verity Burgmann, Ray Jureidini, and Meredith Burgmann, which originally appeared in Immanuel Ness and Satuaghton Lynd’s edited collection New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism.
Construction of the Opera House took about thirteen years (starting in 1959) and the work-in occurred during the final phase of construction. During the construction of the Sydney Opera House, a conventional industrial dispute—protesting the dismissal of a worker and demanding a wage increase—escalated and culminated in the workers expelling management from the site and continuing work under workers’ control from April 8 to May 15, 1972.
A week before the work-in commenced, the Australian reported under the headline of “Workers ‘Forced’ Short Week” that construction workers employed at the Opera House had threatened to dismantle the revolving stage if they were not granted a thirty-five-hour week on forty-eight hours’ pay. Joe Owens, one of the organizers, confirms this was no idle threat. He recalls that when management at the Opera House was confronted with the workers’ campaign for the wage increase, “They threw their hands in the air in alarm and despondency and said it couldn’t happen. However, the workers forced it upon them. I recall that at one point the managers were reneging on the deal that the riggers and fitters on the job went onto the revolving stage and started dismantling it, began to pull it down. That quickly changed some tunes and subsequently the work in itself for the 35 hour week paid for 48 was a success.”
Owens and John Wallace, another organizer involved, wrote an informative account of the work-in experience, appropriately titled Workers Call the Tune at Opera House. They recall that the suggestion for a “work-in… a complete takeover of the job” was met with astonishment and even laughter in the meeting held to discuss how to win the dispute. “However the eventual outcome of the debate was, in fact, a work-in—the dismissed man taken back onto the job in defiance of the management.” Employer threats to remove the dismissed man proved hollow “and it was realized that the authorities on the job did not know where to go next.” A subsequent meeting was held at which the call to take over the job completely was proposed and passed by a large majority.
Force was needed to commence the takeover: “independent destructive action,” in Negri’s words. Workers broke open a toolbox in the Opera Theatre with a crowbar and obtained the equipment necessary to do the work. Or undo the work. To have men standing around would have a disastrous effect on morale, so the workers resolved that if work on construction ran out due to the absence of engineers, work already performed would be “de-constructed or dismantled.”
Employees entered the work site by walking past a supervising engineer and a foreman, who informed each man there was no work available: “The management pickets (a reversal of the usual roles!) must have realised that authority was slipping from their grasp.” It was. The workers elected a foreman and safety officer, and the job was reorganized because certain tasks could not be continued in the absence of engineers. Owens told the press the situation was absurd: “We’ve got men ready and willing to work. All we need is a supervising engineer, but the Department of Public Works says we can’t have one.” Work that could continue did so, and very well, according to Wallace and Owens: “No-one ran to the foreman for trifling decisions which foremen generally demand to make. The leading hands and individual workers found new confidence in themselves. They became self-acting and just went ahead with the task in hand.” They recall that by the second day, company foremen were “completely ignored” and “although they tried to intervene on one or two occasions, they were told firmly by the men concerned that they were not needed and could go and sit in the office, go home or throw themselves in the harbour, but just keep out of the way.” One foreman took it upon himself to dismiss three of his former underlings, “but of course this was disregarded and the workers continued their tasks unconcerned at this.” In the first few days of the work-in, management put up little fight and agreed to pay for the Saturday work-in with a lump-sum payment and for both Monday and Tuesday at normal rates. The workers, according to Wallace and Owens, “were jubilant at this victory for nerve and solidarity.”
Greater productivity and better work practices evolved during the work-in. In demanding forty-eight hours’ pay for thirty-five hours’ work, the workers had pronounced that, under workers’ control, this level of productivity would occur under worker control. The supervising engineer had ventured the opinion it was virtually impossible to achieve such a goal. However, the rate of production exceeded management’s expectations. At the end of the first week, figures proved that a forty-eight-hour production rate had in fact been achieved. How? According to Wallace and Owens, through a reduction in absenteeism, abolition of demarcation among work roles, and, in general, more efficient organization of production by the workers themselves.
Wallace and Owens describe work life under workers’ control:
The enthusiasm was unbelievable and work processed at a rate unknown on the job. The absence of imposed discipline, together with the camaraderie created a harmony… that surpassed anyone’s expectations…. It was like being released from prison after years of hard labour. Boredom and the hatred of oppression were gone, leaving an exhilarated feeling of release. Even the most menial tasks were performed with enthusiasm.
Even when management expected the work-ins to end, the workers wrote, “To go back to a daily drudge under the old management, from the stimulating conditions of the last few days was a very depressing thought, to say the least.” Wallace and Owens conjecture that workers’ control must bring workers to a point when they not only question a company’s right to make a profit, but also question their own role in a capitalist society: “To many of the workers at the Opera House, this is exactly what happened. Conditioned all their lives to seek more money and more possessions, success for some of them was to live like those at the top. So they questioned the need to work, to meet a programme, to discipline themselves. Many heated debates took place around this important question of discipline.”
The nature of work also changed under workers’ control, according to Wallace and Owens:
Once the workers had taken over the powers of management the pressures normally existing on other jobs disappeared. No-one had disciplinary powers, the… foremen and non-supervising engineers were fully integrated into the workforce, not only fulfilling their functions as engineers etc., but in complete harmony with the workers. Lines of demarcation had completely disappeared, with tradesmen doing traditional labourers’ work, and vice versa. Barriers which have been skilfully used over the years to divide workers completely disappeared, staff-men for the first time in their lives realised that after all they too were workers, and accepted their role in the workers’ community.
The form in which the thirty-five-hour week operated “substantially increased the real control the workers had over production on the job. In the final analysis, almost all of the power of management on the job rested with the workers.”
On April 18, the subcontractor in charge of building the revolving stage departed, declaring that worker self-management was “no longer an economic proposition” but a demand for employer control. When all workers were handed dismissal letters the same day, “that was not going to be taken lying down and the meetings next day confirmed this attitude with a vengeance.” On April 20, the building superintendent and security guards attempted for the first time to stop the men from walking onto the job, but the workers went inside, brushing past guards as they did so. That day, thirty-two builders’ laborers and fitters, members of the Builders Labourers Federation and the Amalgamated Engineering Union, occupied the revolving stage in protest at being dismissed. Owens told the press they would continue to occupy the site at the normal starting time each day while negotiations with management were in progress to reinstate them. After receiving a delegation of the workers six days later on April 26, minister of public works Davis Hughes told the deputy leader of the opposition Labor Party that the men were “very troublesome.”
On May 1, these troublesome workers assembled outside the work site at 7:30 a.m. charged the gates, entered in spite of security guards attempting to close the gates, and occupied the revolving stage. This “sit-in strike,” as the Sydney Morning Herald called it, continued each workday until May 5, when a new contractor arrived. However, the men remained troublesome after new management took control. The first day under new management saw a series of protracted negotiations on redundancy payments, with the sums upped each round, until agreement was reached on payments so generous they extracted the majority of employer profits from the revolving stage. The new contractor agreed to guarantee payment for all wages for time lost since the departure of the previous contractor; an increase was also given to all workers on site of ten dollars a week; and, as work did not recommence until May 16 because of an electricians’ strike, all workers were paid for this time lost as well. Enormous pressures were brought to bear by the workers on the Opera House and its contractors to stop the thirty-five-hour week, but it prevailed.
Wallace and Owens explain:
All that had to be done was to convince management that if the workers could completely organise their jobs themselves, the amount of work expected from a working week of 6 days could be achieved under these conditions in 35 hours.
So, the new contractor was told that payment for forty-eight hours was expected.
The result of this militancy was that builders’ laborers and fitters on the Opera House site won forty-eight hours’ pay for a regular thirty-five-hour week, the right to elect their foremen and regulate production, big redundancy payments, four weeks’ annual leave with a 25 percent bonus, and other concessions. These wages were won “by workers’ control tactics and the unity of the workers on the job.” Owens told the press the terms of the settlement were “most satisfactory.”
The full chapter from which this is excerpted can be read in New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism.
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